First, we retraced our steps.
More accurately, Raine retraced our steps and led me in her wake. She left no question as to who was going first, back through the double-doors to the corridor of Not-Willow-House.
A familiar transformation came over her – watchful, alert, tense. My hand felt clammy in hers, my heart in my throat. In the fake corridors she eased each set of doors open with the tip of her boot, waited for any nasty surprises to jump out at us before proceeding.
The Medieval Metaphysics room was gone. As was the back staircase and all the windows; each set of internal double-doors led to another identical stretch of whitewashed corridor, with four classroom doors on each wall and a noticeboard full of philosophy department flyers. Raine tried the door handles, but they didn’t even turn.
After seven identical corridors, the doorway to the main stairwell appeared on the left again. We checked, same endless abyss up and down.
“ … is this the same set of stairs?” I asked. “We went in a straight line, how can we be back here?”
“Time for an experiment, I think.” Raine pulled a Swiss Army Knife and a pen from her jacket.
“We don’t have time to muck about, Raine, we need to get out of here.”
She held up a finger and smiled, beamed that endless confidence directly into my brain. “When lost in the woods, the most important thing is … ?”
I shrugged. “Shout for help? Oh, no, pick a direction and stick to it?”
“Good guess, but not quite enough for the biscuit. Most important thing is: don’t panic. Take a drink, eat a cereal bar, calm down, get your bearings.”
“We don’t have any of those things. Also this isn’t the woods.”
“Yeah, but it’s basically the same principle. Thank Ray Mears for that one. I’m dead serious, the most important thing is don’t panic.”
“I’m … actually not panicking now.” I frowned at myself, took a deep breath. “I’ve done this too many times before, it may as well be routine. At least I’m not alone this time.”
Raine reached over and squeezed my shoulder. “Like a Slip?”
“I guess. This doesn’t feel like one though.”
“Here, time for science.”
Raine cut a big X on the inside of the stairwell door with her knife. I grimaced, because it still looked exactly like Willow House. Vandalism irked all my well raised sensibilities.
Back in the looping corridor, Raine tugged one of the flyers off the noticeboard.
“What? What is it?”
Raine showed me the flyer. “Guess they can’t copy fine detail.”
“What are you talking about … ”
I blinked at the flyer. Total gobbledygook. Backward letters, jumbled words, sentences on top of each other. A photocopy error from hell, as if an alien had seen human writing upside down and from a distance, then recreated it with no understanding of form or purpose. Every flyer showed the same manic mash of text.
Somehow that disturbed me far more than being trapped.
“Put- p-put it away.”
Raine tore down the rest of the flyers. In the next stretch of identical corridor they were pinned back on the noticeboard, but in the seventh – next to the stairwell entrance again – they lay scattered on the ground. Raine’s minor vandalism had not been magically repaired.
We checked the stairwell; X still marked the spot.
“We’re inside a loop?”
“Right, don’t worry.” Raine squeezed my hand. “Evee’s working on this. If I can’t find a way out, she’ll have it solved in no time. Like being stuck in an lift together, just with far less opportunity for necking in secret, eh?”
Raine flashed me a cheeky grin. I tried to smile back and enjoy the joke, but my damnable curiosity had lighted on a point of principle, perhaps to distract myself and keep the panic tamped down.
How does a physical loop work?
“Like a … mobius strip,” I murmured.
My imagination summoned an image of the structure, ruminated on how a corridor could follow a straight line yet also loop around to the same point. The implications of a closed spacial loop teased at dangling threads in the back of my mind. A physical impossibility, but one I could just about picture, if I dug hard enough.
Raine was saying something, as the answer bubbled up from the oily depths of my subconscious.
“Oh,” I said. “I think I know how they made this-”
A blinding spike of pain rammed into my head, right behind my eyes. I let go of Raine’s hand and doubled up, chucked the contents of my guts onto the carpet. Lucky I’d barely eaten anything this morning.
Of course I knew how this loop worked – the Eye had taught me.
Stupid, stupid Heather. Those concepts are radioactive waste, poison, death.
“Heather? Heather, what’s wrong? Heather?”
I sucked in air and clutched my aching stomach as I forced the thought back down. Raine’s helping hands pulled me upright and held on hard as I clutched at her for support.
“Are you Slipping?”
“No, no.” I shook my head and wiped my mouth on the back of my sleeve. Disgusting, but I had no other choice right now. Hardly the best time to need a bathroom, while stuck in a pocket dimensional loop set up by dangerous people. “I- ugh, my head.”
“Take a moment. Breathe.”
“I know how this place works. I think. The math- the principles underlying it. The Eye’s lessons, it’s in there somewhere.” I tapped my head and groaned again.
“Hey, it’ll be okay, I’m gonna get you out of here.”
“I think-” I swallowed. “I-I think I can get us out, but-”
Another wave of nausea slammed into my gut. I leaned forward and struggled to force the thoughts down, don’t touch, don’t touch them. Buried deep in the layers upon layers of the Eye’s lessons lurked the exact mathematical operation required to translate Raine and I out of this space, but it was white-hot to the touch.
I cringed, terrified of pain, of my own suggestion.
When I’d saved Evelyn, dragged her back from Outside, that had been life or death. This? We were just lost.
“Heather, no, don’t try it.”
“But I can,” I whined. “You said you wouldn’t stop me from being strong. Y-you-”
“And you will be.” She rubbed my back, helped ease the nausea out. “But right now you’re untrained or unpractised or un-whatever-you’re-going-to-be, and this is a trap. If you try the mind-magic and it doesn’t work, I’ll have to carry you. Even if it does work, we don’t know what it’ll do to you. Start small, remember?”
“What if we can’t get out?”
“Keep it as an emergency back-up option. In the meantime, you can rely on me, okay? It’s okay to rely on me.”
I nodded, and felt such secret relief and secret shame both together.
“Think about all the things we’re gonna do later today,” Raine said. “When we get out of here, yeah?”
“How about bathe and sleep? And wash my mouth out.”
Raine laughed. “Sure thing.”
She waited until I was steady on my feet, then set about phase two of her experiment to get us out. She flicked open the screwdriver head on her Swiss Army Knife and set to work unscrewing the hinges from one of the locked classroom doors in the fake corridor. I watched her wiggle the screws out as I tried to clean the taste of vomit from my mouth, occupying my mind with anything except how this place worked.
“Raine? Do you think this is about me?”
“Can’t speak for anybody else, but most things I do lately are about you.” She cracked a grin and I warmed inside, even if I didn’t have the energy to blush.
“Oh don’t, not right now.” I tutted. “I mean this place. This trap. Is this for me?”
Raine frowned, took my question very seriously. My thoughts were already racing.
“I mean, those people yesterday, the cultists,” I said. “They did this, right? They lured the Demon Messenger for some reason. Is this revenge for interrupting them or … or what?”
Raine shook her head slowly. “Smart money says the Sharrowford Cult has no idea who you are, and I aim to keep it that way. Last night, my guess is they knew precisely zip until we were already in deep.”
“What makes you so confident?”
“This kinda thing?” She gestured at the corridor, the loop, the trap. “This is why I’m here. My guess is thi was meant for Evee.”
“ … if you say so.” I mulled over the idea as Raine finished dismantling the door’s lower hinge. She dusted off her hands and stood up.
“Job’s a good’un. Let’s find out what’s behind door number one.” Raine grinned at her own dumb joke and waggled the door hinges free. She wedged her fingertips into the thin gap around the frame.
I had a sudden terrifying vision of a howling void on the other side, of Raine sucked through by decompression, of a hand reaching for us from the darkness revealed.
None of those things happened.
Behind the door was a blank brick wall.
“Goddamn.” Raine grunted and let the door fall with a clatter. The noise set my teeth on edge. “Guess we’re in a cartoon now. Huh.”
Raine tapped the bricks with her knife, but for all we knew the wall was a mile deep. She shrugged and shot me an ironic smile, then unfolded the blunt bottle-opener attachment on her knife and dug it into part of the door-frame. She ran it up and down, wiggled it back and forth, until she yanked part of the frame away – a length of steel rod. She weighed it in one hand, swished it through the air, and nodded approval.
My chest tightened. “Do you really think you’re going to need that?”
“Never know. Better safe than sorry.”
Raine had an idea. She took my hand and we walked back out to the endless stairwell. I averted my eyes from the sight as she stared into the abyss.
“Up or down?” she asked.
“ … you’re asking me to choose? What’s to choose?”
“Serious answer? On one hand, your guess is as good as mine, but on the other, you’ve been outside reality on the regular, I haven’t. So, considering everything you know – up, or down?”
I sighed at Raine and held her gaze for a moment, but she seemed completely serious. “Um … down gets dark, and that’s not good. Obviously not fit for human habitation. Up is at least slightly less unsettling.”
“Up it is then. Just focus on your feet, or on mine, don’t look over the side. We’re gonna be fine.”
She led the way up the flight of stairs to the next floor, my clammy little hand tight in hers. I was fairly certain that Raine had no idea how to escape this place, and I was also fairly certain all this activity was just to keep me occupied, stop me from panicking while Evelyn did the real work to get us out. I appreciated it all the same.
“How are you not scared?” I asked.
“Ahhh, I’ve been in far worse places than this. Like Evelyn’s house, the one she grew up in. At least this place isn’t full of monsters.”
“Don’t tempt fate, please.”
“Fate can taste my boot leather. We’ll be fine.”
The next floor was identical to the previous, the same entrance to the same repeating corridors, the same flickering strip lights, the same X Raine had marked on the door with her knife. A perfect loop.
Except for one rather significant addition.
Five young men waited with their backs to us as we emerged into the fake corridor. Alerted by the sound of the door swinging open, they all jumped and turned and stared. One put his fists up, then shook himself and lowered them again. They looked almost as confused as I felt.
“Stay behind me,” Raine whispered.
As if I would have done anything else. Groups of strange men were not at the top of my list of approachables even in normal situations. What did she think I was going to do, ask for directions?
They didn’t seem anything like the sort of people one might encounter inside a dimensional pocket trap; they’d have been more at home standing around on a street corner in one of the rougher parts of Sharrowford, admiring a blinged-out car, all baseball caps and pints of hair gel and too much gold jewelry.
Each one wore a high-vis vest, stretched over a puffer jacket or shrugged on around a hoodie. One of them had draped it over his shoulders like a cape, and another had wrapped his around his arm.
On every vest, the Fractal.
No, I quickly corrected myself. The symbol only looked like the Fractal. Different design. I’d memorised every last angle of the Fractal by now, refreshing it on my left arm every night. The symbols on the vests had been scrawled in a hurry, with marker pen, a different arrangement of lines from a branch shaped the wrong way.
One of the men turned to the others and thumbed over his shoulder. “I thought she was meant to come from that way?”
“Definitely not her.”
“Yeah, there’s two of them for a start.”
“Shitshow already, this job.”
“Everyone shut up,” one shouted over the rest. He stepped toward us. A habitual leader, I guessed. Chunky fellow, overweight but not sagging, stubble on his chin and big blunt fingers raised in an open-handed gesture. He turned an easy, friendly smile on us. “Alright, you two? Lost like we are, yeah? Funny old bloody place, innit? You uh … just you two, yeah? Seen anybody else around here?”
“Yeah,” Raine said. “There’s a girl passed out downstairs, actually.”
The fat guy’s forehead creased into a frown. One of his friends in the back piped up. “She’s having you on, Mark.”
“Fuck’s sake, no names. No fucking names,” the fat guy snapped over his shoulder.
“Where’s the way out?” Raine asked, low and soft.
The fat guy shot a glance back at his posse. One of them shrugged, another suggested telling us, a third one had a disgusting glint in his eye. Even with Raine holding my hand, with her by my side, with my knowledge of what she could do, I felt an animal need to be elsewhere, not stuck in a confined space with several large, threatening people. My heartbeat pulsed in my throat and cold sweat broke out down my back.
“Raine,” I whispered, barely able to raise my voice above a trickle. She ignored me as the men conferred. My throat tightened. “Raine.”
“Who’s gonna miss two kids, Mark?” the wise guy in back said.
He pulled his weapon first. That broke whatever inhibition had held them back. They were all armed – three big knives, a baseball bat, and an optimistic pair of knuckle dusters.
Raine grinned and idly raised the steel rod she’d pulled off the broken door.
“Alright love, come on,” fat guy said, same easy smile as he opened his arms wide, despite holding a knife. “Put that down now, don’t be silly, we just need to make sure you’re not hiding anything. Then you can be on your way, yeah?”
He didn’t wait for an answer. He lunged at Raine.
I think I screamed.
Five seconds, maybe ten, and it was all over. Too fast for me to think about. This was nothing like killing the monster in Evelyn’s house two weeks ago, or the scuffles with Twil yesterday, or even Raine’s brave attempts to do violence on the Messenger. This was a real fight, nothing like in books or films, no flourishes or heroics.
Blood, the sound of impacted meat, the strangely soft crack of broken bones.
I think Raine killed two of them. She didn’t seem to care. We didn’t hang around long enough to find out.
She was very, very good at it.
They barely touched her, a glancing blow to her upper shoulder and a brief handful of her jacket, which she punished with broken fingers and a shattered collarbone. When it was done, four of the men lay on the floor, two of them not moving. The fat man, the leader, was slumped face down with the back of his skull caved in like an egg. Blood soaked into the thin carpet. The last man standing backed away and dropped his knife, knuckles bleeding and split from where Raine had smashed his hand.
“Alright, alright, okay, yeah, okay, alright,” he was repeating, over and over.
She was flushed and breathing hard, bobbing from foot to foot like a boxer, weighing the metal rod in her hand again. She stooped down and pulled the baseball bat out of one of the men’s hands, kicking away his limp attempt to stop her. She hefted the bat and let out a long, shuddering breath.
I was shaking all over, hand to my mouth. I’d unconsciously backed away until I’d hit the door, adrenaline and panic clawing at my stomach and chest.
“Raine?” I squeaked. At least one corpse blocked my route to her.
“I’ll be right there. Promise. Gotta finish this,” she said.
“No, no you don’t have to,” the last survivor said, his hands out to ward her off. He backed away toward the rear double-doors. “It’s cool, we’re done. They’re not paying us enough for this, you’re not even the kid we’re meant to find. Alright? Alright?”
“Who are you meant to find?” Raine snapped off.
He frowned and thought it over for a second, so Raine raised the metal rod and grinned all the wider.
“Okay, okay! Fuck! Fucking hell, you- okay, shit. A blonde girl, uni student, uh, one leg, missing hand, uh, I-I-” He kept backing up as he spoke, one hand groping for the doors behind him.
“Who sent you?”
“Ugh, Adam Gore. He’s just a fixer though. I don’t know who this job is for, okay? I swear, I don’t know. Don’t fucking hit me.”
“How do we get out?” Raine said.
He pointed at his high-vis vest. “They gave us these, right-”
The double-doors behind him burst open and a hand swatted him aside with the power of a wrecking ball. His head bounced off the wall with a sickening crack and he collapsed to the floor
I realised in a rush of horror that these men had been a mere layer of ablative meat, to slow Evelyn down, until the real killers could arrive.
The tall woman in the full-body trench coat, from last night, stepped through the doors and lowered the hand she’d used to murder our would-be attacker. She moved with robotic slowness. She was even taller up close. I revised my estimate, perhaps almost seven feet from tip to toe. Only her eyes showed, between a scarf around her face and a hood pulled low over her head. She fixed on us with cold empty precision.
“Uh, Heather.” Raine took a step back. “Back up, through the door, now.”
I couldn’t move, not without Raine.
The tall woman was not alone.
Nightmare hounds nosed through the door behind her, gathered at her ankles, amalgamations from the worst depths of my pneuma-somatic visions, built along canine principles but from parts of the wrong creatures; some showed metal rivets and stitching between grey lizard-flesh and shaggy hide, plastic hinges at komodo-dragon jawlines, steel-reinforced legs and eyeballs of incorrect size rolling loose in their sockets. Dripping stingers whipped through the air and drool looped from muzzles unable to close properly.
The tall woman jabbed a gloved finger at Raine and then at the floor.
“You want me to drop these?” Raine hefted the metal rod and her stolen baseball bat.
“Think I’ll hold onto little slugger here, but you can have the other one, sure.”
Raine span and hurled the metal rod at the tall woman’s face, a full-body javelin throw with every ounce of her strength. She overbalanced and caught herself at the last moment.
The tall woman jerked her head aside in a sudden flicker of speed. The metal rod clattered against the door. The hounds surged forward.
Raine span on her heels, leapt the corpse or two between her and I, and bundled me through the door so hard I almost went sprawling in the stairwell.
“Heather, up, up the stairs!”
“Where- where do we even go?!” I cried.
Raine pushed me and I went, but we didn’t get more than three paces before the first hound burst through the doors and went for Raine, snapping and growling. She turned and dashed its brains out with a swing of the baseball bat. The hound yelped, a pitiful, terrible sound, and went down in a heap of limp meat and muscle.
I tripped on the stairs, shaking with fear and adrenaline. The next couple of minutes descended into a blur of terror.
I could barely keep my head on straight, let alone form a coherent plan. If you’ve never been in the middle of a genuine melee then you can’t imagine what it feels like. Everything happens too fast, no time to think and react. I scrambled up the stairs, banging my knee and scuffing my hands.
Raine held the hounds off, setting about herself with the bat and her boots, kicking heads and breaking legs and smashing rib cages. She caught one hound by the throat with her free hand and shoved it bodily over the railing, sending it tumbling into the abyssal stairwell. Another one she hit so hard it bowled down two of its fellows. The stairwell filled with the sound of wood hitting meat and twisted canine yelping.
Raine didn’t come away unscathed this time – the nightmare hounds took a couple of chunks out of her, a bite in the leg and another in her forearm, leather jacket turning away the worst of the teeth.
In the heat of the moment I thought her brave.
No, it wasn’t bravery. It was joy.
She was grinning and covered with sweat and one hundred percent in her element. Totally focused, a state of perfect flow, like this was what she was made for. After six hounds dead or wounded, they backed off, slinking away and growling from the corridor.
Raine swept a hand through her hair and let out a long breath.
“Y-your leg.” I pointed. She was bleeding badly from the bite wound, the thigh of her jeans soaked through with crimson.
“Just a scratch,” she said with an ear-to-ear grin. “Heather, I’m loving this, but even I can’t keep it up forever. We uh, we gotta leave.”
I knew what she was asking me to do.
Inside, I cringed away from the Eye’s lessons, but we had no choice. The wound in her leg made it real, raw, life-threatening. We had to leave, right now.
I can do this, I told myself. I’d done it before, in equally as dangerous circumstances, twice in a row, while brain-numb and bleeding. This time I was much more in control, right? Right. Breathe, focus, get us out.
My stomach clenched with anxiety as I summoned a mental image of the loop, pictured in my mind the mathematics to punch an exit back to reality. Nausea rolled through me and a spike of headache pain tingled on the edge of my scalp. I reached out to touch Raine.
A metallic click from above us interrupted my thoughts. It interrupted everything. I looked up.
Several floors above us, a woman aimed a rifle down at Raine.
Whipcord-tight, shaved head, dressed in outdoor hiking gear. The rifle was an old bolt-action thing, her eye to the scope, stock tucked tight against her shoulder. I’d never seen a gun in person before. It didn’t seem real.
Raine began to turn, to follow my gaze. Too slow, much too slow.
The woman pulled the trigger.
From a standing start, I’d have been useless. But I was already knee-deep into the Eye’s impossible equations, my mind on the verge of plunging in. If I’d had time to think, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. The Eye’s lessons offered me a hundred ways, a million ways, and choice would paralyse me with fear of pain, fear of failure, fear of loss.
The very urgency of a bullet in motion allowed me to act at the speed of thought.
I ran through a dozen equations in a split-second, principles I’d never dared touched before, concepts which burned my mind with white-hot searing fire even as I put them into action. I broke physics and gravity and a dozen laws human science had no names for, and paid for it with a bleeding, quivering of my own mind. Momentum, velocity, mass, speed, all deformed like putty. It was clumsy, brute force, inelegant and wasteful and incredibly painful.
So much for starting small.
I turned the bullet away from Raine.
It hit the stairwell wall with a puff of pulverised concrete.
My vision fogged black and I doubled up, vomited onto the stairs, my head pounding like I’d driven a railroad spike into my forehead. My nose streamed with blood and a sticky feeling gummed at my eyes. My knees gave out a second later. Urgent hands caught me, held me up and dragged me. I twitched and kicked, almost insensible.
My chest throbbed inside like my lungs had burst. I fought for breath, gasping and spluttering and vomiting a second time. I tried to say Raine’s name. We had to get away from here, because the woman with the rifle was going to shoot at us again and I had nothing left, I was spent, on the verge of unconscious oblivion.
Raine – I knew it was her, somehow – propped me against a wall on my backside. I forced my eyes open as she spoke, as she tried to speak comforting words, but then she broke off and spun, baseball bat raised for a swing.
The Tall Woman stepped past the reluctant hounds and came for us herself.
Raine did not fare well.
The Tall Woman moved like quicksilver, ducked and weaved and jabbed too fast to follow. Even if I hadn’t been mind-screwed from emergency hyperdimensional mathematics, her motions would have left me dizzy. Raine’s baseball bat bounced off her like she was made of granite, though Raine hit her enough times to extract a deep grunt of acknowledgement. She landed a glancing punch to Raine’s stomach, which made her hunch and wheeze and slow down.
I heard the metal click of the bolt-action rifle again, echoing in the endless stairwell.
Half-conscious, propped up against a wall next to the corpses of terrifying monster dogs, with Raine bleeding and hurt, there was no decision to make. I did not think, I merely acted.
If we left, at least Raine would live.
I summoned everything I had left, hurled myself at Raine and tackled her from behind. Too weak to do more than unbalance her, but I only had to make contact.
“Close your eyes!” I shouted.
The Eye’s impossible equations jabbed molten fingers into my brain. Neurons burnt out. My chest wrenched like my ribs were shattering.
Reality folded up.
First, we retraced our steps.